It's been said the two topics never to bring up in a social setting are religion and politics. But after the events of this past fall, the two topics are often married in conversation and now, increasingly, in books. That fact is confirmed by a look at bestseller lists in recent months, with titles like What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response by Bernard Lewis (Oxford Univ., Dec. 2001) and Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World, edited by Benjamin R. Barber and Andrea Schulz (Ballantine, 1996), firmly ensconced. If religion and politics ever really were strange bedfellows--a doubtful proposition to begin with--they certainly are not now.
It is true that much of the interest in these books has to do with the events of September 11. But a number of publishers, both religion and general trade houses, say there has long been a growing interest in books that look at politics through the prism of religion, or vice versa, and that the topic only gained impetus from the recent tragedy. Some trace the trend to the presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter, when the media seemed to suddenly become aware that some politicians had faith, and that their faith commitments could play a role in the way they governed. Then came the rise of the religious right and the presidential campaign of Pat Robertson. Ronald Reagan was public about his Christianity, and Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, co-opted the language of redemption and forgiveness in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But George W. Bush has taken faith into the political realm perhaps even more than any other recent American president, and that is bolstering the sales of books that blend religion and politics, according to Michael Thomson, sales director for Eerdmans. "Right now the category is growing, and it has been in the past few years for a number of reasons," he says. "George Bush unapologetically mingles religion and politics consistently. He is so steeped in religious language that it comes up over and over again and becomes part of our national debate." Connecting the dots between faith and political action is easier and more relevant for the reading public than ever. Notes Michael West, editor-in-chief at Fortress Press, "Because religion figures so prominently in the scene today, both domestically and internationally, I think serious readers realize they can't understand conflictive situations without taking religion into account. It is the key variable."
Most of the new books in this hybrid subcategory fall into one of two distinct types: books that directly address the events of September 11 and those that don't. But all might be able to ride the recent wave of interest in how religion can become politics.
After the Fall
Brazos Press has published books on politics and religion since its inception two and half years ago. It has produced titles in response to specific events, as it did with Day of Reckoning: Columbine and the Search for America's Soul by Wendy Zoba (Jan. 2001). Bobbi Jo Heyboer, director of marketing, says the trick is to balance quick response with lasting quality. The newest entry from Brazos is Surviving Terror: Hope and Justice in a World of Violence, edited by Victoria Erickson and Michelle Lim Jones (Mar.). Though commissioned before September 11, the book's essays are especially relevant in its aftermath. According to Heyboer, interest in the overlap between politics and religion is here to stay. "People are 'getting' spirituality these days; that is nothing new," she says. "But what is new is that they are seeking ways to connect their spirituality with everyday life and issues." The house shows its confidence in the category with two more titles this spring: Going Public: Christian Responsibility in a Divided America by Lawrence E. Adams (Apr.) and Chairman Mao Meets the Apostle Paul: Christianity, Communism and the Hope of China by K.K. Yeo (May).
Oxford University Press has two new books--Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam by John Esposito (May) and The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins (Apr.). The first looks at the roots of terrorism and how a religion like Islam, which values peace, produces such violence. It was commissioned just after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The second--in the works before September 11--examines how the Christian church is changing as millions of Asians and other non-Europeans convert to Christianity. Peter Ginna, editorial director of OUP's trade division, believes religion and politics go hand in hand. "It is hard to look at religion in a social context without looking at its political dimension as well," he notes. Still, Ginna acknowledges interest in the topic is up, largely driven by September 11. "Each of these authors has published several books with OUP; but in this environment we are pushing their sales to a whole new level." Ginna says he expects Esposito's book to bring the author his highest frontlist sales ever, and he predicts Jenkins's new book will outsell his previous ones.
New from Eerdmans is The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God by Lee Griffith (Mar.). It was written before September 11, but with those events, the house decided to move the book up on its schedule (it had been planned for fall) and add a brief afterword dealing with the attacks. Griffith attempts to answer the question of how religious people should respond to terrorism. Though Eerdmans has published books on politics and religion before, this is its first title on terrorism, says Thomson. Eerdmans's commitment to the study of religion in public life is strong. In the pipeline is an as-yet-untitled work by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence that will examine "the myth of the savior in politics and how that plays out in our country and in the world scene," Thomson says.
Chalice Press has previously published collections of sermons that respond to a particular political or tragic event, as it did after the Los Angeles riots, the Oklahoma City bombing and the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. The books sold well as people turned to religious leaders to understand those terrible events. But Chalice is seeing even more interest in its newest religion-and-politics title, Strike Terror No More: Theology, Ethics and the New War, a collection of scholarly and theological essays, edited by Jon L. Berquist (Mar.). Director of marketing Susie Burgess says sales have exceeded expectations, especially since the publisher only listed the title in its academic catalogue. "We have several hundred back orders for it already," she says. Burgess sees the events of September 11 taking the topic in a new direction. "Before, we were looking at things from the stance of whether they are moral, like church and state issues," she says. "But now I think it is less black and white. Now the books are addressing more questions than they were before."
Evangelical publishing houses responded to the events of September 11 with titles viewing the current political situation through a conservative Christian lens. All of these books were commissioned just after the attacks and typically feature a well-known Christian minister or speaker who tries to make sense of the events from a biblical perspective. From Multnomah comes Light in the Shadow of Jihad: The Struggle for Truth (Feb.) by Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist who examines the political and religious roots of Islamic fundamentalism. Rod Morris, the Multnomah editor who worked on the book, says the house hopes this title will break out of the CBA market and into indies and chains as Americans of all faith backgrounds try to make sense of the senseless. "This tragedy has affected everyone, regardless of his or her religious or political background," Morris says. "There is a need to hear the Christian perspective on these events, as many are asking, 'Where was God on September 11?'" Other attempts to answer that question include Broadman & Holman's Why Was America Attacked?: Answers for a Nation at War by D. James Kennedy (Nov. 2001); Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams (see InProfile in this issue), a March title from Eerdmans; Thomas Nelson's Attack on America, New York, Jerusalem and the Role of Terrorism in the Last Days by John Hagee (Nov. 2001), Zondervan's God's Grace from Ground Zero by Jim Cymbala et al. (Nov. 2001) and W Publishing Group's Terrorism, Jihad and the Bible by John F. MacArthur (Dec. 2001) and Why God? by Chuck Swindoll (Dec. 2001).
A unique entry is West of Kabul, East of New York: An Afghan-American Reflects on Islam and the West by Tamim Ansary (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Apr.). A memoir, the book also provides a personal examination of the relationship between the Islamic world and America as experienced by the author, who feels pulled in both directions. The book was commissioned post-September 11 after Ansary (InProfile), a San Franciscan, sent an e-mail to friends and family outlining how he felt the American government should respond to the terror. The e-mail found its way around the world and to FSG, which commissioned the book. FSG editor Paul Elie says he has long seen a growing consumer interest in nonfiction, and that September 11 more firmly established that trend. "I think the destruction of the World Trade Center has demonstrated once and for all that, no matter what anybody says, Americans have a generous appetite for news of the wider world," Elie says. "They care about politics, about religion, about ethnicity. It isn't an accident and it isn't just good marketing."
Booksellers confirm this sophistication among readers, not only in their general tastes in nonfiction, but specifically in the religion-and-politics subcategory. "If there is a single positive thing that has come out of September 11 it is that the public is educating itself and becoming more aware of geo-political realities," says Karen Pennington, inventory director at Kepler's in Menlo Park, Calif. "Each book gives them a greater understanding." Pennington says she is beginning to see different "fragments" of the subcategory spin out from its central spoke--for example, books on the Israeli-Palestinian situation and books on Turkey's secular government in the midst of the Muslim world. "As people are getting increasingly adroit at understanding these conflicts, these books are opening up a whole new world."
A Classic Pair
University of Alabama Press demonstrates its confidence in the staying power of the subject in its five-year-old series on religion and American culture, which has now reached a dozen titles--a significant number for a house that produces about 24 books a season. Its most recent entry is Religion, Politics and the American Experience, edited by Edith Blumhofer (Jan.). A product of the American Religion Project at the University of Chicago, the book is the first of a planned trilogy that will include Religion, Education and the American Experience (May) and Religion, Culture and the American Experience (Spring 2003), all edited by Blumhofer and with introductions by Martin Marty. Elizabeth Motherwell, UAP's marketing manager, says other books in the series have done so well they are being reprinted in cloth, not paper. "It tells me that there is a big interest in religion, and that no matter what our Constitution says, religion is a strong force in the politics of our country." Motherwell says UAP is currently acquiring more manuscripts for the series; planned titles include Holy Warrior: The Long Life of Harry F. Ward (a proponent of social Christianity) by David Nelson Duke (Fall 2003).
Some classic political/religious issues maintain their place among publishers and readers. Chief among these is the perennial tension between faith and government rooted in the First Amendment's promise of freedom of religion. Mercer University Press will publish The Challenges of Roger Williams: Religious Liberty, Violent Persecution and the Bible by James P. Byrd Jr. in May. The book outlines how the 18th-century religious leader used the Bible to argue for religious freedom. Marc Jolley, Mercer's interim publisher and editor, says interest in books about religious freedom is consistent, but that these books are even more relevant now. "We are seeing more people in the last six months who have been persecuted because they were thought to be from a certain religion," Jolley says. "Yet we believe the Constitution promotes freedom of religion and freedom from religion, that it is a way to balance tolerance. Williams did a great job of showing that in his day." Mercer has had more than the usual interest in this book and in some of its backlist titles. "We did a book in 1987 called Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion by Richard E. Wentz, and it was just dead in the water. But now we're in the second printing since September." Other books that explore church-state issues include two OUP titles, Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America by Thomas J. Curry and Regulating Religion: The Courts and the Free Exercise Clause by Catherine Cookson, both published this past November.
Another subject being revisited in a handful of new titles is religiously motivated political activism. Ktav Publishing expects interest in Principles of Spiritual Activism by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Mar.) to be higher than usual, not only because the author is a well-known activist, but also because of the tenor of the times. "Religious individuals have to get involved in the democratic process," says Bernard Scharfstein, executive v-p at Ktav. "The nature of society requires it." Also on this topic is I'd Rather Teach Peace: Lessons from the School of Non-Violence by Colman McCarthy (Orbis Books, Apr.). Editor-in-chief Robert Ellsberg says that, although the book was written before September 11, its stance that nonviolence should be considered as a response to violent acts is particularly relevant now. "In a way these are timeless issues," Ellsberg says. "But I think the reader will bring critical questions to this and will be looking for some very pointed answers in light of the situation we are in now."
Westview Press looks at faith-based political activism in Joining Hands: Politics and Religion Together by Roger Gottlieb (May), a writer for Tikkun magazine who revisits the idea that joining spirituality and politics can foment social change. This will be the house's first trade book on religion and politics," says Greg Boule, Westview's senior publicist. "I think there will be a lot of crossover. Politics is very wide ranging--a lot of people are interested in it, and it is provocative enough that this category can be a bridge for getting religiously themed books onto a broader stage."
The situation in the Middle East gets another look, as Fortress Press re-issues The Wrath of Jonah: The Crisis of Religious Nationalism in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict by Rosemary Radford Reuther and Herman J. Reuther (Mar.). Originally published in 1988 by Harper & Row, this academic title is being redirected at a trade audience. The new volume is updated with new sections, a new chapter and new maps. Fortress's West says the decision to reissue the book was partly motivated by September 11 and partly a response to the escalating unrest in the region. He too has seen a growing interest in religion-and-politics titles. "There is much more serious interest in the history of religious traditions and in non-Christian religion and how religion figures in conflicts today," West says. "That is one thing September 11 brought to the fore--that religion is indispensable in understanding these situations."
Here to Stay?
As the distance from September 11 grows, will reader attention to religion and politics wane? Publishers are split on the question. Multnomah's Morris says the interest in how religion and politics affect each other is here to stay. "What is unique about September 11 is that the rogues who plotted and executed these cruel acts come from nations where their politics are their religion," he says. "Therefore, when anyone chooses to write or comment on these events, they automatically enter themselves into both arenas. The world now realizes the importance of understanding our neighbors, and I think we'll see more books on these topics." OUP's Ginna is not so sure. "Will we see more titles in this area? Well, my experience is that trade publishers have a herd mentality. If a few books on religion and politics--not counting the September 11 bestsellers--are conspicuously successful, they will all start saying 'religion and politics is hot!' But I do think there is probably some room for more titles in this category before it becomes glutted."
Though the timeliness of the topic may be a boon to sales, booksellers say titles on politics and religion can also present a bit of a puzzle when it comes time to shelve them. Do they belong in the religion section, or in political science? What about current events, or just plain new nonfiction? Kepler's Pennington says she and her staff consider each book separately. Some wind up on the current events table, some in the store's Middle East section and some in religion. Publishers are aware of the problem and hope it might ultimately turn to their advantage. "When I was trying to sell this book, that was the question--where do I shelve it?" Eerdmans's Thomson says of The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God. But maybe the hybrid nature of such books can be their ticket onto the front tables. "Books like this should have a shot at it," Thomson says. "They handle the material from a sociological and political point of view with enough acumen that they should be seen and read."